I was 16 and a junior in high school. He was 25 and worked security at another high school across the city. I was a community theater kid, and we met in a chorus group for Brooklyn’s theater junkies. The grooming and sex abuse began a few months after I’d joined the group and continued off and on for almost a year.
It’s taken me 25 years and ongoing trauma therapy to understand how I wound up in that situation. And still, it wasn’t until I saw FX’s miniseries, A Teacher, which despite buzz was snubbed by the Emmy’s earlier this week, and the abusive dynamic between English teacher Claire Wilson (played by Kate Mara) and 17-year-old Eric Walker (played by Nick Robinson) that I knew with absolute certainty I was preyed upon by a grown man. A crime had been committed against me. My body. My psyche. I trembled as I binge-watched the series, briefly reliving life through Eric’s eyes with each episode. I first watched it with my husband, and then I watched it a second time, alone.
Establishing predation is something A Teacher does well. Described as a lesson in predatory behavior, what Kate Mara’s character does is irrefutable, textbook grooming and abuse. In Claire Wilson, we see a complicated woman in an unfulfilling marriage, who is still dealing with childhood demons, namely the ghost of her father’s alcoholism and the trauma of her mother’s death. I suppose, to some, these kinds of details make it possible to see how someone might spiral out of control and do something regrettable. But a traumatized, bored, and entitled woman who gives up everything to cross the line with a minor is an incredibly frustrating storyline. Centering the series on Wilson’s internal struggles was an offensive misstep, suggesting that it’s possible to rationalize how an adult might find themselves in such a situation. (Eric’s confrontation with her in the last episode does little to mitigate this narrative blunder.)
The series would have been far more impactful if it also took up the often invisible and unchallenged circumstances that can lead to a minor’s vulnerability, to see how Eric may have been primed for victimization long before he ever met the teacher. It’s crucial to understand why some sexual predators succeed. Otherwise, shows that establish predation without also highlighting teen victim vulnerability run the risk of feeling like more entertainment and titillation, and there’s not much information to be gained.
When cases of sexual predation against minors emerge in entertainment, we’re often told almost nothing about the victims. I scoured the series for glimpses into the conditions that may have made Eric vulnerable to his teacher’s advances. There are a few examples of what seem like a psychologically complicated home life. Eric is clearly the man of the house—his mom (played by Rya Kihlstedt) counts on him to take on the responsibilities of maintaining a home and caring for two young children; she even guilts him when he falls short. In many ways, it seemed like Eric was more of a surrogate husband or dad than a teenaged son, and his mother’s over-reliance on him struck me as deeply problematic.
Psychology might refer to the dynamic between Eric and his mother as parentification—a process in which children are inappropriately thrust into adult roles. We can only guess how Eric felt about his role and obligations (burnt out? Angry? Resentful?), but the fact that he wound up between the sheets with his teacher suggests to me, based on my own experience, that Eric felt fully equipped to consent as an adult. When children are parentified, they naively feel prepared to play adult games. And sadly, they are more likely to search for what they’re not getting at home in other relationships. According to cognitive science and child trauma experts, parentification is just one way that children become primed for victimization.
I also felt equipped to consent when I met a man we’ll call Joey. He was cute, in a celebrity crush sort of way—I’d always thought of him as the Italian John Stamos. He was into acting and popular in the local theater circuit; he lived nearby and offered me rides to and from rehearsal. Joey met my mom, and she trusted him to transport me safely. When we were in the car together, he’d ask me about school and tell me about women he was dating and shows he performed in. I told him about colleges I was interested in and confided in him about my parents’ recent separation.
My experience getting to know Joey reminds me of how Mrs. Wilson groomed Erin. The car rides and the oversharing about her personal life built trust between them. Eric lapped it all up, like an abandoned puppy looking for a forever home.
Like Eric, I was honored that a talented and objectively good-looking adult would want to interact with me, a kid concerned mostly with schoolwork, grades, and negotiating weekend curfews. With Joey, I felt seen in ways my home life wasn’t granting me. And by the time he appeared in my tiny world, I’d already been thrust into adulthood. When your father chooses his vices over his family and your mother defaults to rage and routinely behaves as though motherhood is the short end of the stick she was been given, your childhood peters out like a flame to water. Research now knows that children born to emotionally immature parents struggle to get their psychological needs met at home. I firmly believe that the emotional void I’d experienced as a child primed me for Joey’s grooming.
Even 25 years later, it’s hard to internalize that I was not—and could not have been—a consenting partner in this equation. Sometimes, I still catch myself chalking the experience up to my own bad decision-making and failure to speak up. I was a child who grew up in an archaic and invalidating “children should be seen and not heard” environment, a toxic approach to parenting that has endured for generations. Thanks to therapy, I know now that Joey deluded me with a carefully crafted show of respect and validation that the other adults weren’t showing me. As a child craving adult acceptance and positive attention, I fell for the ruse and was his for the taking. Before I knew it, I was cutting school to be with him. And like Eric, I didn’t tell anyone. I felt an obligation to protect my abuser—a sense of responsibility that may also be a byproduct of parentification.
When I think of all that I was processing at the time, and all that made me susceptible, I get angry. Joey seized an opportunity I could not have consented to—that I would not have consented to under normal and healthy circumstances. At 16, I was not capable of consent. And I don’t have to know anything about Joey’s life or struggles to know that what he did was objectively criminal and damaging. There is no level of nuance that could have made his behavior palatable.
We need more television shows and films that dive deeper into the root causes of sexual predation, on the receiving end. But what we don’t need are any more glorifications about attractive, wayward, and unfulfilled predators who seek escape in vulnerable children. A Teacher helped me understand, fully, that I’d been sexually abused. But it failed to help me feel understood.
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